Or how ridiculously long summer holidays are the best
So, I previously wrote a bit about my earliest memories and life in Germany, or what I remember of it. My time in Germany was cut short by the “end” of communism. Specifically, the fall of the Berlin Wall. If we are doing things in a strictly chronological sense, then I should probably talk about the six months I spent after Germany living in Glasgow. Unsurprisingly, there is little of note but I will deal with it in a couple of memories/facts:
I remember having chicken pox. Or, at least, I know I had chicken pox at this time. I went to what is technically an all girls’ school. I was young enough to be in the one year where they allowed boys. I was one of two boys, I believe. I remember, vaguely, a policeman giving us a traffic safety talk (but this might have been from when I was living in London several years later, so don’t take my word on this.) I remember running out of a class once to another classroom because I thought we were going to watch a video (and that was normally where we went to watch a video). I’m pretty sure I kept it cool on my return to my class. I once had to see the headmistress because I had spent lunch running around looking up girls’ skirts. Edit: My sister has fleshed this story out somewhat as, understandably, my memory is not 100%. I came to her in tears and said a particular teacher had been mean to me. (This teacher, apparently, was generally a bit mean). However, when I revealed the reason why the teacher was angry with me, my sister’s sympathy evaporated.
I do not remember this, but my parents think it is an amusing story: when they took me into class one day, a handful of my female class mates approached me and helped me take my coat off and hang it up. While this is probably intensely interesting from a social dynamic, gender studies, childhood development, and anthropological perspective, my biggest take away is this: I was once the alpha-male. This scenario was likely preparation for what I would experience when my family moved to our next destination: Uruguay.
Ah, Uruguay. It is slightly unfair to the other countries I would later live in but Uruguay is the standard to which they would be compared. Or, at least, it is in pole position and is always going to be very difficult to unseat. Nostalgia has that effect. Oh, and perfect weather.
First, the house. Uruguay was my dad’s first posting as an Ambassador. One of those quirks of history the residence in Uruguay was far grander than you would expect from this kind of posting. It was large. It was white. It was colonial. It was grand. It was beautiful. It was home. For three years I lived in a house with a marble floor entrance, a stairway as elegant as anything in Gone with the Wind, a room large enough to play indoor football, or hold ceilidhs, a dining room fit for a banquet, and a large garden. The garden had a swimming pool, an avocado tree, lemon tree, a raspberry bush, all sorts of nooks and crannies, and some kind of lethal cotton tree. Not actually cotton, but the husks that risked splitting your skull upon their descent had a cotton-like material inside them. My bedroom had a balcony of its own that looked out at this murderous tree. In the summer this tree would be surrounded by the hum of activity, a multitude of hummingbirds supping at the nectar.
My first memory of Uruguay was arriving at this house, this mansion, and being welcomed by the staff (who were, with one exception, wonderful. The exception got the sack and was replaced by the excellent Hubert). My family and I were on one side of the entrance hall, the staff on the other. Greetings were exchanged by my parents and, as is typical for young kids, I was asked if I wanted to say hello. I almost certainly hid behind my mum’s leg, may have said hello quietly in English instead of Spanish, and I remember the smile on one of the maid’s faces. It annoys me somewhat that I can’t remember names. I can barely remember faces. I know, I know…how many names and faces can you remember from 25 years ago? Still. Seems all a bit rum. I also have this recurring memory that I was annoyed I didn’t know the Spanish for hello at the time. Likely an annoyance that came later and has been projected back, of course.
I went to a school called St Andrews. There ended up being some symmetry as I went to the University of St Andrews, though there is no direct connection between the two. Except, I suppose, the fact that they are deeply Scottish. It is in Uruguay that I learned Scottish country dancing, even competing, at the tender age of 6-7 years old. I remember the event being a pretty grand one. The concept of heritage and identity is pretty current in various debates and, unfortunately, the discussions are rather limited in scope, rather simplistic. Uruguay, like Argentina, has many families with historic connections to the UK, a connection that is revealed in the surprising frequency of British family names. So you will find people called Alfonso Macleod, as a silly example. So, in some ways, it is not surprising that there would be a Scottish country dancing competition, but, of course, it still is somewhat surprising.
I wrote previously about Uruguay in relation to a couple of notebooks I still have from my schooling there. I don’t remember all that much in terms of specifics. I am told often that I had a reputation as a hypochondriac. There’s a picture of me (or was) in the school holding up my index finger in expectation of a plaster for a boo boo. My hypochondria was not totally ill founded, I would say! I have a scar on my right arm from my BCG jab. I don’t know what the whole story really is, but long and short is that I wasn’t meant to get the jab. I got it and, as a result, have a large scar that I was self-conscious about until…my late teens, I guess? I did once attempt to suggest to someone that it was a bullet wound scar. I got further in that story that I expected, but more on that later.
In terms of my education, I remember two distinct things: Uruguay is where I learned cursive, and I must have been fluent in Spanish. I wonder what my handwriting would look like today if I had continued in the vein that it was taught at St Andrews. My handwriting progress was greatly disrupted by my return to the UK where, even in the mid/late-90s, handwriting was no longer considered of particular importance. I am always delighted when I meet people with nice handwriting. Increasingly rare as fewer people see the point, I guess.
I wonder what my Spanish would have been like if I had stayed in Uruguay just a year more. Returning to the UK aged 7-8 and not speaking Spanish again until I was 13 (and then, only the utter basics of hellos and stuff about the biblioteca). Too many what ifs, I suppose. But a real shame, as my Spanish has never recovered and fluency is a distant memory.
What’s weird, though, is that I don’t necessarily remember speaking Spanish in Uruguay. It is one of those things where logic dictates that I must have, but I have an English memory. I had two best friends: Alejandro and Sofia.
One story, as I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told the story enough times and it is worth sharing, I suppose. It was my birthday and there was a magician. The magician had me come to the front, as I was, naturally, the centre of attention. He asked me, in Spanish, whether I had a girlfriend. I answered, in Spanish, that I had two. “Dos!?” He said, in awe. And what are their names, he queried. “Alejandro y Sofia.” I responded. Put this down to innocence, or an early, but incomplete, grasp of the language. Don’t, please, assume this is some expression of experimentation with social values or something. Anyway, it stands as a moment of evidence of speaking Spanish, but not a moment of fluency, unfortunately!
Did I speak to my friends in English or Spanish? Possibly a mixture of the two? But at the school, not all the teachers were bilingual, surely. So Spanish would have been the language of choice most of the time.
Uruguay was where I first engaged with computer games. Three avenues for this: Sofia, my friend, where we alternated between role plays of “House” with games of duck shoot and Mario on the Nes: one of the security team at our residence had a console of some form on which I would go down and play: my dad bought me a Snes for my birthday (or Christmas?) and then began my love of Zelda. Considering my later enthusiasm for playing computer games, almost at the expense of anything else, I am not sure this birthday gift panned out quite as might have been expected!
Two more distinct memories/stories. This is quite a long read, and if I remember more then I can write more, so two more quick things that are amusing/interesting, potentially. The first is a story of my parents’ first reception at the residence. Now, this was my dad’s first senior posting, so both he and my mum were likely incredibly nervous and keen for everything to go well during their first major event. There were many people at the reception, people from the Uruguayan government, other politicians, business leaders, other diplomats, their wives, husbands, and so on. A prestigious crowd. My parents were standing in the entrance hall, greeting each arrival personally, as etiquette and protocol demand. Everything seems to be going well, they think, until a football flies past them, followed by me. “Oh, God!” they must have thought in that instant. Until, swiftly following on my heels, was the Uruguayan Finance Minister. Then from, “Oh, God!” their minds must have gone to “How do we use our children for political gain?” I was merely a pawn in the grand game of international diplomacy! I joke.
The second is simple enough: the American ambassador would host a christmas party at the American residence, at which the children would be in one room in which Home Alone was shown by way of a projector. I suppose to flesh out this memory I should tie it to other film watching events: I saw Aladdin in Uruguay for the first time, likely dubbed, and I made my mum take me to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles multiple times. I suspect it was the 3rd film, in which the turtles time travel to feudal Japan and Michelangelo “arrives” riding the horse facing the wrong way. Classic.
Okay, that’s it for my memories of Uruguay for the moment. Again, a bit disjointed and such, but probably more later. The next location after Uruguay is London, which I will probably skip because it’s not that interesting. Instead, I will probably write about the place after London: Sarajevo.
P.S. I forgot to mention summer! Summers in Uruguay were long; summers in Uruguay were perfect. The weather, christmas (Southern hemisphere, remember), the swimming pool, no school for 3 months. Bliss.
EDIT: While it is true that I played football with the Finance Minister, he was not the only member of the Uruguayan government to be involved in a football game in our house. I played football with President Lacalle. Or, should I say, President Lacalle played football with me. No biggie.